Facts About Vouchers
Milwaukee, WI Voucher Program
The Wisconsin law governing the Milwaukee voucher program requires participating schools to select voucher students randomly to guard against discrimination based on race, geography, academic status, religion, and other factors. However, an analysis by PFAWF and the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP of voucher schools’ written random selection plans for the 1998-99 school year revealed that one third of the participating schools were not complying with the law. Instead, a number of the schools had “random selection” plans that granted illegal preferences to students based on religious, academic, and other grounds. For example, the Saint Alexander School’s plan stated: “New students to Saint Alexander’s will be accepted in the following order: Siblings, Catholic Students from Saint Alexander’s Parish, Catholic Students from other parishes, and then non-Catholic students” [emphasis added].12 The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) ordered all schools to delete such provisions from their random selection plans.13 In fact, DPI adopted a new rule requiring that a private school’s random selection plan must be approved by the agency before the school may participate in the voucher program.14
In 1999, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (an independent agency that investigates compliance with civil rights laws) conducted an investigation of the admission practices of voucher schools on behalf of PFAWF and the NAACP. The investigation revealed that a number of Milwaukee voucher schools were violating students’ religious freedom by discouraging parents from opting their children out of religious activities.15 The Wisconsin voucher law specifically provides that a school may not compel a student to participate in any religious activity against his/her parent’s written request for exemption.16 But according to the affidavit of one of the Fair Housing Council investigators, the head of one religious voucher school said that if parents are going to opt out of the religious aspects, then he wants them to opt out of the school. He added, “If you don’t want your children to take part in the religion, our school’s not for you. It’s a Christian education. That’s what we’re about.”17 Another school representative, in answer to a Fair Housing Council investigator who stated that their child is not Catholic, was told this was fine but that the child would have to participate in all religious activities and services.18
The investigation also uncovered other practices by voucher schools that violated the voucher law, including the imposition of admissions requirements on voucher students and the charging of fees. In light of these practices, PFAWF and the Milwaukee NAACP filed a second complaint with the DPI, which then conducted its own investigation. In April 2000, DPI issued an initial determination finding “probable cause” to believe that certain violations of the voucher law and its implementing regulations may have occurred. DPI is still attempting to mediate a final resolution of the complaint. To date, it has settled with several voucher schools, which have agreed to change their practices.
Academic philosophy and mission statements of many religious voucher schools clearly demonstrate that—even granting full compliance with students’ right to opt out of prayer services and similar religious activities—religion and religious activities pervade the curriculum. For example, one school’s approach to teaching/instruction states that “Nazareth Lutheran School’s curriculum is full-time Christian education…Christian education and its full-time sense continues on during [subjects like reading, spelling, social studies and mathematics] too; it is much more than a religion class added to the curriculum. God’s love for us and His relationship with us through Jesus our Savior is explored in a variety of ways throughout the day, on a regular basis. Walk into one of our classrooms and you are just as likely to hear a discussion of God’s love in the science class as in the religion class….”19 St. Philip Neri’s explicit mission is to provide a “holistic foundation in Catholic values for elementary level children and their families, many of whom are unchurched or non-Catholic” [emphasis added].20 At Emmaus Lutheran, “[a]ll subjects are taught from a Christian perspective,” while at Holy Redeemer “all learning will be rooted in the understanding of faith in God and the power of His Word….”21